Library of Congress is 220 years old

Library of Congress – research library and the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution

Home to an oldest printed Bible, Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, baseball scouting reports and a collection of tweets from all over the world this unique athenaeum celebrates 220 years of its existence.

Library of Congress in Capitol Building
Library of Congress in Capitol building

PEEK into the past

Founded on Apr. 24, 1800, when the capital was moved from Philadelphia to a new Capitol building in D.C., burnt twice, by the Brits two years into the War of 1812 and by the accidental Christmas fire of 1851, it has since been moved to its own seat, named after its benefactor, president Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson’s belief in the power of knowledge and the direct link between knowledge and democracy has shaped the Library’s philosophy of sharing its rich, often unique collections and services, as widely as possible.

Jefferson himself assigned over 6 thousand books to the Library when it first lost its collection to flames (now in Rare Book and Special Collections Division). This humble repository was originally meant solely for the Congress’s purpose; its members, after all, were well-educated avid readers. After the Civil War, though, when the country regained its economical balance, the Library of Congress slowly but surely developed into a powerful (inter)national institution which would preserve heritage and promote democracy, cooperating with both domestic libraries and cultural centers all over the world.


Completed in 1897 and restored in 1997, the Thomas Jefferson building is the oldest of the three main LoC facilities, next to the Art Deco Adams building and the modern Madison Memorial. The main library edifice is a magnificent work of architectonic art, designed in the Italian Renaissance style and executed by over forty American painters and sculptors.

Library of Congress, Washington DC, USA

The exterior boasts 33 ethnological heads testifying to the Library’s mission of promoting ethnological science, from Modern Greek, through Semite, Abyssinian, and Zuni, to Samoyede and Slav. The visitors to the front entrance pavilion are welcomed by busts of those considered the greatest thinkers of the world: Demosthenes, Emerson, Irving, Goethe, Franklin, Macaulay, Hawthorne, Scott and Dante. The arches of the Great Hall are supported by sculptures representing Literature (one with a writing tablet, the other with a book), Science (with the torch of knowledge), and Art (sculpture and painting). The doors below the arches bear the themes of Tradition (left; a prehistoric man, a Norseman, a shepherd and an American Indian, the latter from a sketch of Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé tribe), Writing (right; an Egyptian, a Greek, a Jew and a Christian, those who influenced the world through the written word), and the art of Printing (center; with the engraving “Homage to Gutenberg”), all three concepts representing ways to preserve cultural heritage.

And we’re inside, in the Great Hall, blazing with white marble arches and brazen ornamental stuccos, guarded by the two Minervas: the Minerva of War, with a sword of might and torch of learning, and the Minerva of Peace, clasping a scroll in one hand and raising a globe high to the sky with the other. A gold-inlaid ceiling above their heads overlooks marble inlays on the floor which form the image of the sun: a compass pointing to the four cardinal directions of the Library. Two powerful staircases lead to upper floors, their balustrades richly ornamented with cherubs that symbolize painting, sculpture and architecture (north side, with a plaster bust of Thomas Jefferson), and comedy, poetry, and tragedy (south side, with a bronze bust of George Washington). The railings are inhabited by an egalitarian cherubic crowd: a gardener, entomologist, student, printer, musician, physician, electrician, and astronomer on the north side, and a mechanic, hunter, vintner, farmer, fisherman, soldier, chemist, and cook on the south side.

The East Mosaic Corridor takes us out of the Great Hall to further rooms. Rich with mosaics and names of eminent American-born scholars, it boasts quotes from Bacon (“Knowledge is power”) and Horace (“E Pluribus Unum”). The paintings in the corridor, adorning the entrance to the Main Reading Room, pinpoint the very idea behind the original Library of Congress. Good Government in the middle, with the Gettysburgian quote from Abraham Lincoln (“A government of the people, by the people, and for the people”), Corrupt Legislation leading to Anarchy on the left, and Good Administration leading to Peace and Prosperity on the right.

Good Legislation mural by Elihu Vedder
Good Administration mural by Elihu Vedder (LoC, Prints and Photographs)

Finally we arrive in the Main Reading Room. A commodious oval reading space with bookstacks in the galleries provides an excellent environment for any scholar, ourselves included. The reading floor is guarded by massive marble columns with eight large statues above them. Each statue is equipped with a quote inscribed in gilt letters, selected by Harvard University President, Charles W. Eliot. Each is accompanied by two bronze statues of men renowned for their category of knowledge, i.e. Plato and Bacon (philosophy), Michelangelo and Beethoven (art), Herodotus and Gibbon (history), Columbus and Fulton (commerce), St. Paul and Moses (religion), Newton and Henry (science), Solon and Kent (law), and Shakespeare and Homer (poetry). Above these eminent gentlemen tower huge semicircular stained-glass windows with seals of states and dates of their incorporation. The culmination of this impressive space is the dome, ornamented with the Human Understanding cycle: twelve seated figures representing countries that contributed most to human progress. They start with Egypt, the cradle of written records, Judea: religion, Greece: philosophy, Rome: administration, Islam: physics; and move on to the Middle Ages and the birth of modern languages; to end with Italy: the fine arts, Germany: the art of painting, Spain: discovery, England: literature, France: emancipation; to finally arrive at America, associated with science.

Here begins our library query. Seated at one of the spacious tables, in the quiet dim of indirect sunlight, spot-brightened by characteristic librarian’s lamps, with ready access to vast catalogues and a continuous influx of research materials delivered as requested to our post by library staff, we can study virtually any topic one could think of. This architectural grandeur, dripping with intellectual quotes, symbols and references, translates into the wealth of the Library’s possessions.

SUBJECTS & collections

Almost 170 million items in 470 languages on 826 miles of shelf and over 3000 employees – these are impressive numbers. The LoC collections span four millenia, from 2040 BC (a cuneiform tablet, the oldest written material in the LoC) to 2020 exhibits. “Largest,” “most versatile,” “most comprehensive”: these are the key phrases here.

The LoC houses African and Middle Eastern materials in non-Roman script languages, one of the largest Tibetan collections in the world, the largest collection of Iberian, Latin American and Caribbean acquis, as well as the largest collection of Russian materials outside Russia, and Chinese/ Japanese/ Korean materials outside Asia. The Library of Congress has also archived the world’s largest law library, including gazettes; the largest collection of 15th c. prints and rare books; the largest cultural documentation on American folklife and veterans’ history; as well as the most diverse repository of scientific and technical information. To round out the day, we can indulge ourselves in the world’s most extensive original newspaper collection or the largest collection of comic books. Not to mention the largest collection of each and every single Tweet for the first 12 years of Twitter history. You wrote it? Your tweets are there!

Next to the written word, the collections include the most varied forms and formats: almost 6 million maps (e.g. Waldseemüller’s 1507 “America’s Birth Certificate”); almost 7 million sheets of music together with the largest collection of musical instruments; six million films, TV broadcasts and sound recordings; 15 million photographs, posters and other visual images; as well as technical reports and specifications, and telephone directories from 650 US towns and cities.

Library of Congress archives encompass the wealth of knowledge with a very clear purpose in mind: to preserve and share.


The short answer? We believe in the concept of the Library of Alexandria.

We are partial to the LoC’s mission and vision, the importance of preserving contemporary knowledge and traces of the past for future generations and making it widely and fully available to researchers and the general public.

Not without significance is the emphasis on supporting education and the accessibility of knowledge to persons with disabilities. World Digital Library and Teaching with Primary Sources are programs available to educators around the world, enhancing their work in the classroom/ lecture hall. The LoC’s National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped provides publications in braille and on audio cassettes (since 1931), and today also in the form of Digital Talking Books with the accompanied equipment.

Our authors are selected for work which rates inclusion in the world’s cultural heritage.

Looking forward to your exploring frontiers with us,
yours truly, Æ Academic team!

The Library of Congress is the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution and serves as the research arm of Congress. It is also the largest library in the world, with millions of items in its vast collections.

The Library’s mission is to support the Congress in fulfilling its constitutional duties and to further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.

Further reading:
John Y. Cole (2017) America’s Greatest Library: An Illustrated History of the Library of Congress. Foreword by Carla D. Hayden. The Library of Congress: D Giles Limited, London